Retirement from her role teaching hearing impaired students after 35 years offered Kathryn Gander the opportunity to pursue a lifelong love of art.

Kathryn graduated from her MA Design course at the University of Sunderland’s Winter Ceremonies at the Stadium of Light last week – marking a new chapter in the 62-year-old’s life.

When Kathryn signed up for the part-time Master’s degree, little did she know the programme would lead her towards a career path that combined her interests in nature, writing and illustration.

Now, with help from the University’s Digital Incubator service, which aims to support the next generation of digital and creative freelancers, entrepreneurs and business start-ups, Kathryn is drawing on the design skills she’s developed over the last two years, and looking towards setting up a Community Interest Company (CIC) which offers individuals and groups the chance to explore experiences of nature journaling.

Nature journaling is recording observations, thoughts, and questions about nature using a combination of words, pictures and numbers.

Kathryn, from Lanchester, County Durham, says: “When I started this course I had messed around with bits of art for years, I knew I loved it, but just didn’t know which direction to take. But the degree helped focus me, I created wildlife animations with voiceovers, specialising in insects, worked on illustration and children’s books, and I did some nature journaling in my second year as part of my degree.

“I love the outdoors, it’s a great way to explore the natural world around us, and learn more about our environment. It’s also very therapeutic and would appeal to all sorts of community groups.

“It’s in the early stages and I’m looking at how best to set it up. I’ll be linking in with some local wildlife groups, dipping my toe in the water and see what will work and what people will like.”

Kathyrn was looking for a bridge from her job as a teacher, working with, and advising hearing impaired students in County Durham, into retirement. After dabbling in various aspects of art over the years, she heard about the MA Design programme through other members of the Society of Northumbrian Scribes, created to promote calligraphy, where she is also a member.

She said: “I have worked with hearing impaired students since my first degree course in Manchester, a BA in Education and Audiology. I then had a short spell in the NHS in audiology, but then went back to my teaching role. However, I always wanted to do art, but was discouraged when I was younger, so when retirement came, it just seemed like the right choice.

“I also needed the discipline of the master’s to focus me. It was absolutely the right choice and suited what I do in terms of illustration work and combining lettering and art. I’ve really enjoyed the programme despite going into lockdown after the first term and stayed in touch with fellow students.”

Project Manager for the Digital Incubator, Louise Dixon, said: “Many of our members, like Kathryn have not had the chance to meet face to face until recently, when our fantastic new state of the art facility opened for business, within the David Goldman Technology Centre. Through the pandemic we supported Kathryn by organising sessions with an expert who supports setting up CICs as well as supporting her on her start up journey which she did alongside her course.

“One of the stand-out characteristics of our members has been their enthusiasm, there is a real sense of community and members are always willing to support each other and offer feedback. For Kathryn, she needed a website creating for her videos and animations and she works with other members for support and advice as well as working with her mentor, Paul Graham who is the senior lecturer attached to the Digital Incubator.

“Kathryn has been a great member who has attended 23 hours of workshops and has really used her photoshop and in-design skills to develop her work which has allowed her to create a children’s book as well as animations that will benefit the hearing-impaired students.”

She added: “We are really enjoy working with our members both face-to-face and online and seeing how their start up ideas develop and grow.”

Anyone interested in Digital Incubator membership can contact the team via email at digtialincubator@sunderland,ac.uk.